When discussing the survival possibilities of young cubs – whether leopard, lion or cheetah – luck is probably the single biggest factor in determining their survival.
We can go on ad infinitum about great den-sites being selected, dominant males controlling territory and individual females being good mothers or not, but most of it is irrelevant in the face of the fact that luck is probably going to be what it comes down to.
The Tamboti female recently lost a litter of two to the 5:5 male. It was in an area he hadn’t been seen in for a long time, and it just so happened that the time of his passing through coincided with her moving her cubs into that section of her territory. There was no way any female leopard could predict the presence of a foreign male in the area. The 5:5 male found the cubs, he wasn’t the father, and, sadly for us but totally instinctive for a big male leopard, he killed them. It was pure bad luck.
Around two years ago a female cheetah was raising four tiny cubs on Londolozi. After two weeks of sensational viewing, the five cheetahs were left alone by the rangers as dusk fell, but anxiety was high as everyone knew that the Southern pride was lying a kilometre or so down the road. The next morning the mother was found calling for her cubs, of which there was no sign. Lion tracks were everywhere. The cubs weren’t seen again. It was simply bad luck that had her walk into exactly where the pride was resting.
This is not meant to be a post of despair, I simply want to make it plain that no matter what lengths female big cats go to to try and ensure their offspring’s survival, no matter how strong that protective gene is programmed within them and no matter how dominant the fathers of the cubs are in an area, luck still has to be on their side for them to even have a ghost of a chance of survival.
It works both ways, don’t get me wrong. Some of you may have seen the post from a week or so ago in which we showed a GoPro video of some of the trackers finding the den-site of the Nhlanguleni female. Well a few days after that video was taken, we were horrified to discover the tracks of a Matimba male and Mhangeni lioness heading straight into the drainage line at the very spot we had found the Nhlanguleni female and her litter. The tracks went in and out at various spots and clearly indicated the lions had spent some time investigating the area, almost certainly having detected the scent of the leopard cubs.
Thankfully that same evening a passing vehicle caught a brief glimpse of the litter scuttling into a Grewia thicket, and reported that all was well. One can only imagine how terrifying it must have been for the tiny leopards to have two enormous lions sniffing around just outside their den (the cubs will probably still be too small to attempt to seek refuge in the trees), yet luck was with them and they survived the ordeal.
This begs the question; how many times do incidents like that take place that we don’t know of? We have seen the Mashaba female’s cub treed by both hyena and lions on different occasions, but I’m sure things like that are regular occurrences; most of the incidents simply take place late at night. When the Mashaba female was first denning in a rocky section off Mbabala Donga, we had a camera trap set-up to record the nocturnal comings and goings of the leopards, and some of the photographs clearly showed a hyena trying to dig its way under the boulders to get at the cubs. Thankfully, the hyena was unsuccessful.
I may be wrong, but it is likely that every few days cubs in the bush encounter a potentially life-threatening situation. Maybe even more regularly than that. Maybe less. Young leopard cubs being taken to a kill will have hyenas sniffing around constantly, and any lapse in attention can be fatal. Lion cubs left alone while the mother goes to hunt with the pride are incredibly vulnerable should their den-site be in any way penetrable by a rival predator.
The bottom line is that when it comes to cubs, whatever individuals we view during the first year of their lives have simply gotten lucky every time they encounter something dangerous. They have seen it in time or it bypassed them without realising they were there. The individuals that don’t make it, the ones that we simply stop seeing, are simply the ones whose luck ran out.
With a number of both leopard and lion females likely to be attempting to raise litters over the next few months, we can only hope that luck – an agile sprite that can leap both ways very quickly – will be on all of their sides.